In the Eye of a BrainStorm

Back to Contents of Issue: January 2005

In the Eye of a BrainStorm The state of Japanese science as observed at Neuroscience 2004

by Bonnie Lee La Madeleine

Clustered into an area less than one square kilometer (smaller than Roppongi Hills), more than 31,000 brain researchers laid claim to every ledge, chair, corner and step. These neuroscientists were quietly preparing to negotiate the chaos of the next five days, October 23 to 27, and maximize their information gathering efforts. The Society for Neuroscience’s Annual Meeting, the world’s largest scientific convention, was about to begin, and there was a buzz in the air.

The buzz was perhaps from the coffee. The lines at the six Starbucks stations didn’t persuade coffee drinkers to settle for tap water. The lines were longer at Starbucks than at Mrs. Field’s, even though Mrs. Field’s was serving Starbucks coffee. Research presented later in the week by Dr. Masato Taira and his team at Nihon University School of Medicine suggested that emotional associations with brand names might trigger even the most logical people to wait in the longer line.

Results from imaging studies conducted by Dr. Taira and presented at this meeting showed that subjects with a deeper brand affinity to a product or label had higher levels of activity in brain regions strongly associated with emotion when exposed to their choice brands. A relationship between brand affinity and purchasing was also found. Simply put, people with more brand loyalty spend more on that brand. An emotional bond with Starbucks kept those brain researchers in line for coffee. Or, as researchers at the University of Florida suggested, it might be that even decaf has sufficient caffeine to remain addictive. Regardless, a buzz there was.

I, too, was excited. This was the third year I had attended the annual meeting to promote the work in brain science being conducted at RIKEN Brain Science Institute in Saitama, north of Tokyo. With each year, my interest in Japanese contributions from other institutes has expanded, and this year I was determined to scope out a more complete image of Japanese brain science in the international context. Other journalists covering the meeting were focused on those findings highlighted in the press packet that promoted advances mostly from the United States. I was not surprised that, with the notable exception of Sandra Blakeslee of The New York Times, most had no real idea of the work being done outside of North America.

Throughout Neuroscience 2004 representatives from the Japanese cohort were easily spied. A few could be found sprawled along the outside wall of the complex, but most preferred not to bask in the Californian sunshine. Instead, seated at tables, their computers open, they talked in low voices. Were they eager and excited to be there? Considering that attending the meeting is a rare privilege for most of them, I suspected they were.

Yet the Japanese researchers also looked nervous. They had two disadvantages. One was language. Native English speakers, especially the younger ones with less international experience, used slang and did not adjust the pace of their speaking for researchers with different linguistic backgrounds. Networking with colleagues was not easy. The Japanese were also fighting jet lag. In science, team Japan rarely has the home court advantage.

American-based research dominated the slide presentations and mini-symposiums. Meeting planners felt that the Society for Neuroscience is predominantly an American organization, with a minimal international component, and the meeting representation should reflect this fact. A breakdown of membership by country of citizenship, base lab, and main language, however, shows that nearly 40 percent of the membership is based outside of the U.S. Japanese researchers contributed just over 17% of all the new findings presented at this year’s meeting. That is nearly one-sixth of all the science presented at one of the most important brain science meetings in the world. I’d say that is significant.

At this year’s meeting Japanese delegates presented data on brain imaging and mapping, brain development, and the understanding and prevention of brain disorders Unsurprisingly, Japanese are strongest in areas requiring the technical prowess to develop and use tools for advancing brain and information sciences. Their brain imaging studies of the precise cognitive processes including reward and decision-making are typically well received.

Genomic cataloging and analysis, while not pioneered in Japan, has also developed into a Japanese niche. This work, led by RIKEN Genomic Sciences Center in Yokohama, contributes to linkage and animal model studies on brain development and disorders. Successes in these areas tend to outshine work in the more competitive fields of developmental and disease research in the memories of their non-Japanese peers. Here, the role of Japanese research is supportive, not innovative.

“Japanese data are always beautiful,” said a French researcher from Columbia University, “but usually they support other findings. Rarely do they push novel ideas or trigger new trends in brain science.” The feeling is that most research coming out of Japan is derivative of larger work emerging from North America and Europe.

Several Japanese researchers would agree. “In Japan, science is like a bonsai: small and perfectly balanced, therefore beautiful,” said Dr. Atsushi Iriki, formerly of Tokyo Medical and Dental and now at RIKEN Brain Science Institute. Iriki investigates awareness of self and action in monkeys. He recently showed that a monkey’s body map can expand to include tools, like a rake that extends the area usable by the monkey. He feels that until Japan widens its lens to see the bigger picture, it will not be able to take a leading role in brain research. Other Japanese, in equally competitive research arenas, gave similar comments.

Jack Diamond, the newly appointed director of Canada’s Alzheimer’s Association, voices a different view: “It is not just Japan that lacks vision; researchers as a whole have forgotten how to think creatively.” He believes that pressure to produce important research results to secure funding is hindering scientific creativity everywhere. “Go talk to taxi drivers and school teachers if you want to see true creative thinking and problem solving. These individuals are faced with more uncertainty than any researcher will ever be,” Diamond concluded.

An injection of creativity might be required everywhere, but Dr. Iriki suggested that Japan might need more. Strong, influential outsiders would be needed to wrench Japan out of its researching patterns, he said. Just as Carlos Goshen was able to implement immediate and dramatic changes at Nissan, these imported researchers could ignite Japan’s science by introducing international standards.

What I found, walking around the posters, however, were research reports showing unique approaches and creative thinking in the work of many young Japanese researchers. New findings about animal cognition and behavior, learning and memory, development and aging were presented for peers to digest. Brain diseases, and futuristic developments in stem cells, robotics and brain-computer hybrids were also fairly common. If there was a difference between science in Japan and other nations, it came more from focus than from investigative skill.

Two “hot topics” were evident from the poster sessions. Most scientific meetings break down content presentations into a few lectures, several slide presentations, and a host of poster sessions. A0-sized cork-board posters announcing a dizzying array of data are displayed along the perimeter of the exhibition hall. Each poster is assigned to a region by its thematic grouping. Despite efforts to keep related topics close together, walking from row B to row XX was common. After walking the entire length of the exhibition hall several times, there was no need to go to the gym. These sessions are the heart, no, the brain, of this meeting. More than in the lectures, keynote speeches and mini-symposiums, it is at the posters where the most exciting discussions happen. It is in a poster where controversial ideas and results are first shown, and where novel methods are introduced. And here passions flared for neuro-computing and neuro-economics.

Neuro-economics is a new field emerging from behavioral psychology. The psychology of newspaper headlines and marketing is far from revolutionary, but what is ground-breaking is understanding better how those images trigger neural activity that regulates an individual’s behavior. As mentioned earlier, Dr. Masato Taira and colleagues at Nihon University showed how strong brand loyalty causes greater brain activation. This in turn affects purchasing behavior. Theirs was a preliminary study that divided subjects into three groups according to brand affinity. Results from their functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging, or fMRI, studies showed that those with very strong associations to a brand had significantly higher activation in regions of the brain involved in generating emotion. The university team concluded that brand addiction emerges when extremely strong emotions are tied to the product name or image. Hello Kitty’s creators must have known that intuitively thirty years ago.

Neuroscientists are just starting to understand how individual responses to external events can be traced to brain activity. The social setting in which we make mistakes has also been investigated by a laboratory based in Japan—this time in a classroom situation. A Hyogo University research team subjected elementary school children to a series of simple shape-recognition problems either alone or while being observed by fellow classmates. Eunyoung Kim, Nobuyoshi Iwaki, and Hayao Imashioya found that children noticed and attempted to correct mistakes sooner with friends watching than when tested alone. Electromagnetic recordings confirmed the effects of social forces on the brain function of these children, who naturally wanted to be perfect in front of their friends. External motivators are stronger than internal ones. Remember trying to impress the boss? It is the same process of error recognition and correction working in children. Like brand addiction, a peer group’s effect on behavior has a neural basis.

Neuroeconomics is likely to expand our understanding of how emotion and motivation are involved in more than just our shopping habits. In time, it might help explain social behaviors that increase public trust, altruistic behavior, and selfishness.

The impact of social groups is likely to have real neurological bases that influence moral development. The reverse is also actively studied in Japan as researchers investigate ways to translate brain activity into external, non-human actions. Sounds like science fiction, but neurocomputing, brain-computer interfacing, and robotics are very real developments in neuroscience.

Intelligent robots, biological-based computing and brain-computer interfaces are cool and “so typically Japanese” said a Canadian researcher. He was looking at a poster by a RIKEN Brain Science Institute researcher in the Laboratory for Brain-Operative Devices. A few years ago this lab produced a self-navigating helicopter that used a brain-based model of vision and prediction. This year the lab improved the engineering imitation of an insect’s compound eye by developing an eye that can detect motion within a wide angle via a single circuit. This circuit is the equivalent of the single neuron firing in the fly’s visual pathway. The cool part of this? The lab believes this technology might soon be incorporated into automobiles to help ease navigation in tricky situations.

Another RIKEN researcher, Hovagim Bakardjian, presented results from his efforts to translate human brain activity into machine responses. By studying the brain pathways of the visual and motion response systems, Bakardjian was able to isolate a brain signal for motion that occurs only 100 milliseconds after visual stimulation. This finding brings humans one step closer to communicating motion to remote machines with a simple thought command. If that is not too close to Matrix for you, researchers at Juntendo University in Tokyo are a step closer to making virtual reality more than a cerebral experience. Drawing from earlier work on the relationship between tactile stimulation and perception—work that supports Dr. Iriki’s efforts—Dr. Moizuimi and colleagues showed that timing visual perception and physical sensations can create the awareness of touch in the right area of the brain, even when the stimulus occurs in the wrong location.

Beyond the regions for posters on Cognitive Function and Computer Interfaces, there were many Japanese researchers hawking their ideas in other areas of brain research. I was struck by their loyalty to one another. As I walked down a row of posters, I could usually pinpoint the one I was seeking by the cluster of Japanese researchers there. Unfortunately, they would usually be speaking in Japanese, thereby discouraging non-Japanese interaction about the science. That said, French researchers clustered in French, Chinese in Chinese, and Russian in Russian. Only the Germans seemed to stay in English while at the posters. This might explain why poster sessions are more international and why nations have developed the niches they have.

By day three of the meeting there was a noticeable drop in energy, as good intentions gave way to informal conversations and jet lag. Fewer people could be seen walking to and from posters. Conversations seemed to be longer and less focused. Attendees sought out familiar faces, seeking refuge from the massive amounts of information being presented.

Standing in the RIKEN booth as the meeting’s pace slackened, I started to think about Japan’s place within the international landscape of brain science. There was some truth in Dr. Iriki’s comment about Japanese researchers’ bonsai approach to science. Many researchers from Japan omit the overarching hypothesis that knits together data from the presentations, and I often walked away from a poster or slide wondering what the larger point was. Cultural differences in the approach to research might mediate how data are introduced to and interpreted by the international audience.

Japanese science might be seen at supportive, less risky, or uncreative, yet this was not entirely what I saw in the posters. It was fun and the questions driving the work seemed to be shaped by the social contexts in which the researchers were raised. The work on children’s responses to peer presence in learning situations is a good example. Studies on brand addiction or peer pressure within a positive moral setting are not likely to have emerged from the United States because there the individual remains the primary subject of most cognitive research.

Unlike the basic and academic researching systems in the United States, which pin research to funding sources, Japanese laboratory heads are evaluated by results. Researchers in North America must present clear stories that connect anticipated results with specific social and scientific goals before the work is conducted. This helps gather support and shape the means for evaluation, i.e. one paper per grant. And, as long as the lab is funded, it remains open. For the time being, Japanese lab heads are funded for long-term research plans, not for individual projects. They are able to control how the work is done, and shape their stories as the data emerges over a prolonged period. Their work is assessed according to the way the work has developed and the communication of interim results is often more focused on raw data than on merit. I suspect that more Japanese researchers will be less reluctant to communicate untested ideas as the competition for funding heats up in Japan.

As I pondered the future of Japanese neuroscience, a former student of the institute stopped by the RIKEN booth to relax. She was tired of standing at posters and eager to meet old friends. As the young Swiss researcher sank into the sofa, I asked her about Japanese researchers and the research they present.

It seems the stories get lost in translation. “Sometimes, it is hard to see where they are coming from. I looked at a poster of a colleague and did not understand the work,” she said laughingly, “and we worked together.” She added that she is eager to return to Japan, because learning the stories is what opens the doors to truly novel findings.

Bonnie Lee La Madeleine is program coordinator for the RIKEN Brain Science Institute.

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